In July 1980, two young Native women were abducted in central California. Police know who raped and murdered them — Wilson Chouest, who was convicted in May 2018 of their stabbing deaths.
Authorities also know much about the women. They believe one was kidnapped in Lemoore, Calif.; her body was found in Kern County on July 15, 1980. The other woman was kidnapped from Visalia, Calif., and was found in Ventura County on July 18, 1980. Both were petite, both were mothers and one was pregnant.
Despite a nearly 40-yearlong effort, though, the women remain unidentified. One may have ties to Washington, which prompted a California television reporter to reach out to the Yakima Herald-Republic to share information in hopes that someone recognizes something and can help return them to their families.
Olivia LaVoice, a reporter for KGET in Bakersfield, Calif., created a website, Murdered and Forgotten, to tell as much as possible about the women. DNA has proved ineffective in identifying them, the website notes. There are no fingerprint matches and dental records haven’t helped.
That’s what prompted LaVoice’s efforts and the website — in essence a crowdsourcing effort to give these women back their names.
“I started working the DNA Doe Project last year and they’ve been working on their genealogy. While they aren’t having a lot of luck on building a family tree that can really help narrow down who they are, they were able to determine both women are Native American,” LaVoice said in an email. The DNA Doe Project uses genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Does.
“And I strongly believe that (the) Lemoore Jane Doe is from Washington state as she has a Seattle tattoo,” LaVoice said.
Along with her Seattle tattoo in artistic script, that young woman had several distinctive, professional tattoos in an era when tattoos were much less common in women, the website says. One tattoo has the name “Shirley” inside a heart. Another says, “love you.” On her other arm, a rose tattoo is encircled by the words, “Mother I love you.”
“We want you to share the stories of the missing moms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — everywhere,” the website says. “Someone, somewhere knows who these women were. Investigators agree: If the right person sees this story, the missing moms can be returned to their families.”
Learning from clues
Janet Franson, a retired homicide investigator who runs the Lost and Missing in Indian Country Facebook page, is not familiar with the two California cases but has helped identify other Jane and John Does throughout the United States. The tattoos are telling, she said.
“Ask anybody, ‘Why did you get that tattoo?’ Because it means something. When something says ‘Seattle,’ that’s pretty straightforward. There’s a reason for those tattoos,” Franson said.
Most of the time when people get tattoos, they like to show them off, she said; it’s unusual that someone with such distinctive tattoos is still unidentified. But perhaps the woman left home, got the tattoos afterward and never returned, so family and friends would not have seen them.
It used to be homicides were one of the easiest things to solve because there was always a connection between the victim and the suspect, Franson said. The freewheeling 1960s, when young people began leaving their homes to crisscross the country in greater numbers, offered opportunities for serial killers.
“Most of the time they didn’t have any money so (they traveled by) hitchhiking. That presents a great opportunity for strangers to come in contact with each other,” she said.
“Unless they can get identified quickly, what happened was they kept them for a while (then) put them in a pauper’s grave” without ever being identified, Franson added.
In Yakima County
Yakima County has its own Jane Doe cases. One young woman hasn’t been identified since she was found murdered in a van in downtown Yakima on July 25, 1977. Yakima Police Department investigators, who exhumed her remains in July 2004 to extract DNA, are hoping that genetic genealogy can identify her.
And the Yakima County coroner, James Curtice, plans to exhume the remains of a young Native woman whose body was found near Parker Dam in the Lower Valley in February 1988. Investigators believe she was a homicide victim. She and the woman found in Yakima are both buried at West Hills Memorial Park in West Valley.
Though “the numbers change daily,” Franson said of unidentified remains, there are approximately 40,000 cases throughout the country on any given day. She works when she can on unidentified remains but spends more time on missing persons cases such as that of Janice Marie Hannigan, a teenager living near Harrah when she disappeared in December 1971.
“I like those old cases because I think they deserve to be worked and most of these agencies don’t have the resources,” she said.